State of the Hogs: Fans Pack Baum

Arkansas won two out of three from top-ranked Vanderbilt, but the real story on the weekend were the fans packing Baum Stadium.

The big story this weekend at growing Baum Stadium had to be the fans. There were lots of them and there will be room for more as the season progresses.

Proving the build-it-and-they-will-come theory once more, here are the hard numbers on fans for the weekend:

> 7,985 in the park on Sunday, 8,541 tickets sold.

> 26,266 in the park for the series, 27,083 paid a record for actual series attendance (previous mark 25,091). And, that's a record for paid fans for a three-game series (previous mark 26,007 set for an LSU series in 2005).

> 68,022 in the park for the season, 98,157 sold to date.

New sky boxes on the third base line will open soon, with those on the first base side to follow thereafter. New seats behind the UA bullpen should be put in place as soon as two weeks.

The good news is that most everyone flocking to the nation's best college ball park understands the game. Maybe they all played baseball in their early years.

They knew enough to cheer when Brad Secrist was announced as the right fielder, despite his miscue Saturday afternoon. They cheered every time he came to bat Sunday. I bet they recognized Saturday's pitching star, big Duke Welker, beating everyone to the foul line to give Secrist a high five when he caught the fly ball to end the second inning.

Brian Walker gave them what they came to see, a grand slam into the Arkansas bullpen in the bottom of the fifth inning to give the Hogs a 8-2 lead. It brought the big crowd to life for its best Hog call of the entertaining weekend. Walker, forever the hot dog, made sure they saw his face. He took his helmet off just before crossing home plate as the red-clad partisans roared.

"I loved it," Walker said later about the hatless finish to his roundtripper. "It was awesome and very loud when I got there."

They also knew enough to boo the umps, all of whom had tough times during the three-game series. They were all over home plate ump Fred Cannon on Friday night when he squeezed the strike zone on both Nick Schmidt and David Price. Those fans came to see those two, not Cannon call balls on pitches from a pair of future first-round picks that crossed the black of the plate.

"Our fans were on them, you are right," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "They gave them a hard time and were into every pitch."

Did the Hogs see this attendance boom coming? Yep, says Matt Shanklin, UA associate athletic director.

"We talked to folks at LSU and they told us what would happen if we got to hosting regionals," Shanklin said. "What happened there has happened here."

By that, Shanklin said it's a matter of fans wanting to make sure they had their seats reserved. Hence, they began to buy season tickets in big numbers.

That's why Arkansas passed LSU in season attendance in the last couple of seasons. It dates back to the super regional and the College World Series trip of three years ago.

The UA brass has done plenty right with Baum Stadium, including hard work to preserve the atmosphere in the Hog Pen. That's one of my favorite features of Baum. I took a tour of the area beyond the left field wall on Sunday to see families grilling amidst students doing their thing. It seems they police their own area and coexist in fine fashion.

There is still work to do in the Hog Pen. The UA is waiting on word from the state concerning the easement so a permanant fence can be put along Razorback Road. The state indicates that will be done, but that fence won't be built until the paperwork is done.

Until then, the picnic tables won't be placed on concrete pads. More picnic tables and grills will be added soon, too.

"We probably need to raise the berms just a little to help the sight lines to the field," Shanklin said. "We can still do that. I'd like to drop the area next to the fence in left center in the Hog Pen and that would help all the site lines."

I like the idea that the chair back seats behind the bullpen won't be sold each weekend until game day. That means fans who are willing to stand in line can always get in the park without buying season tickets. It's not a lot of seats, just 220. The Hog Pen is extremely popular with UA students.

A tour of that area revealed plenty of pretty sights on Sunday when temperatures were in the high 70s all afternoon. Students get in free at Baum, but that's no guarantee they'll attend. There's plenty of other options (lakes, rivers, etc.) in Northwest Arkansas on a nice spring weekend.

The Hogs are a good bet to lead the nation on average attendance for the third straight season at their current rate. They always are going to have a hard time winning in total attendance (not average) since LSU doesn't go on the road for nonconference games and the Hogs do. The Tigers usually play 8-10 more home games than the Hogs per season and they can because of warm weather in February. The Hogs will play only 29 home dates this year.

Vandy coach Tim Corbin was in awe of the place, start to finish. "Hey, we are not even out of March and they are breaking records," he said. "And, they are making it bigger. No one can top this. It's Triple A level at least."

Corbin remembers the early days of Baum when Norm DeBriyn coached.

"It was good then, as far as atmosphere," he said. "Fans here are big-time and really into it. They have it all sports, but this is the best anywhere you want to go as far as baseball."

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was appreciative of those remarks. He is glad others recognize what Arkansas fans bring to the table.

"I think they were very good when I came, but they are better now," Van Horn said. "A few years ago I'm not sure they always recognized a big at bat in the game. They do know. They know when to get into it and make a difference in a game.

"You really can't say enough about our fans. I was excited to see how many turned out. I think it's a combination of two things this weekend as far as setting records. The stadium has been expanded and then you have the No. 1-ranked team with some real stars. Our fans wanted to see Vanderbilt."

Corbin smiled about that.

"We may have come in here as the No. 1 team," Corbin said. "But we didn't leave here No. 1."

Van Horn felt the crowd played major role.

"Our players love it, too. Having a crowd like this sure doesn't hurt us. And, it may bother the other team."

It can bother the Hogs, too. Reliever Jess Todd had to be calmed in the late innings by pitching coach Dave Jorn.

"Coach Jorn came out and told me to calm down," Todd said. "He said there were 10,000 people screaming but to stay within myself. That's what I did.

"Hey, this is just great. Can't get any better than to play in this atmosphere and beat the No. 1 team. I went out to the bullpen and there were about 1,000 out there. They were telling me to ‘go do my job and win for the state of Arkansas.' They love this team. It's great to play here and have fans lined up to get in the outfield and you haven't even taken batting practice."

And, it's only going to get bigger and better.

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